Let’s get this out right up front. I am a pilot and I own a drone.
With all the talk about drones mixing with aircraft, I thought it might be good to start this article by clarifying what a “drone” is. When I’m talking about drones, I am talking about sUAV or small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The FAA likes to use the term, sUAS or small Unmanned Aerial Systems. Sometimes they are called RPV, Remotely Piloted Vehicles. But, in the end, most people just call them drones.
I’m not new at this; I’ve been a modeler since I was a kid flying remote-controlled aircraft and helicopters, and a licensed pilot since I was in high school. And, for those that don’t know me, that’s 1975. I have been in the aircraft and aviation insurance business since 1985. It seems to be that there are two sides to this issue of drones and I just want you to know which side I am coming from, which happens to be both.
Getting into drones was an easy transition for me, particularly since many of the aviation insurance underwriters have been insuring drones for years. I’ve found it to be a fun and exciting area of business, but for many of my customers and pilot friends it’s something substantially different.
The drone industry is growing exponentially and can potentially be good for aviation. Many pilots see drones as a danger, because this new rapidly-growing industry can open the doors to many people getting into the airspace without experience or training. But it can also offer opportunities for drone pilots to move into other areas of aviation. In reality, I think it’s a chance to promote aviation.
A Big Opportunity
Okay, what’s the big deal about drones? Well, the FAA estimated that over a million drones were sold just at Christmas. That’s a lot of flying machines. I was at a drone convention last September and it was reported that one major manufacturer was selling 15,000 drones a day, worldwide. Think of your cell phone and how fast the smart phone market took off.
It’s a numbers game. With that many drones flying around, any report of a near-miss will add to the pilot’s concerns. But, before we get too worried, let’s think about how a drone can work for us. As pilots and aircraft owners, thousands of people flying drones have made the public more aware of the world of aviation. Sure, it’s just a “model”, but now people that never got involved with aircraft are thinking about drones as a hobby or business. In the model aircraft world, many of the model aircraft pilots are full-size aircraft pilots too. I went from models to full size, as did many other people I know. Why can’t this new drone trend be the same?
It is important to note that, in order to operate a drone as “for hire” or “commercial” use, the drone needs to be registered with the FAA, have a 333 Exemption, obtain a Certificate of Authorization (COA), and be flown by a licensed pilot. In the legal sense, the commercial operators should already know the “rules of the air”, compared to the hobbyists. But, with the huge number of drone operators, I would guess that many do not meet those minimums.
If that’s the case, those inexperienced pilots will need to have some sort of training to get them up to speed with the rest of the aviation community. Sure, there are drone-specific training programs such as UAV Boot Camp or Unmanned Safety Institute. But what’s available for the drone operators if they want more? I, along with many underwriters, recommend that a drone operator take an FAA ground school or even work towards their pilot’s license. I gave a webinar for the EAA a few weeks ago and was informed by a powered-parachute CFI that you can get your sport-pilot powered parachute license with something like 12 hours of training. While it might not seem like much, I believe that any training and any sort of pilot rating is not only a plus for the drone operator but also a plus for the aviation community.
Applying For Commercial Operation
My son and I decided that we should know about the process for getting our drone approved for commercial use. We wanted to experience what our customers go through. We started the process of filing for the exemption and discovered what a nightmare it was. The FAA required we submit an explanation of what we will do with the drone, how we will do it and what FAR’s we wanted to be exempted from. If you weren’t a pilot, you would sure know a lot of the regulations by the time you were done creating your request. No, it is not a pilot course and it won’t make you an expert, but sure it can’t hurt. Not only did we learn a few new things, but we also became an FAA-qualified commercial drone operator!
These commercial requirements are destined to change, but probably not for another year or so. I think, before they change the rules, the flying public has the opportunity to recognize the drone community and offer some guidance and help. In my mind, it would be better for me (a pilot) to help a drone operator that is not a pilot.
Thinking out loud here, many of the people that file for this 333 Exemption are not pilots. But, to operate officially, they need a pilot to fly the drone…hmmm…I’m thinking part-time job. If you know of a drone operator, maybe you can offer your pilot services and help keep the operator within the boundaries of the FAA requirement.
Another important rule states that a drone shouldn’t fly higher than 400 feet; it has happened and it will happen. It also says that drones shouldn’t fly within five miles of an airport without telling the airport, and that happens. So, be aware and be vigilant. As a pilot, it is in your and other pilots’ best interest to help educate drone operators. If you have hobbyists that are flying in the area, take a minute and stop and see what they are doing. It is not a time to lecture them about the “evils of drones”, it is an opportunity to talk to them about their interest and maybe share information from a pilot’s perspective.
Word of warning: I stopped to watch a First Person View (FPV) drone race, and couldn’t believe how much fun it was. I was able to get a demo view of the race from “inside the drone”; it was like I was in the drone. The warning is, it’s a blast and it can have an effect on your pocketbook (I recently ordered a race drone).
In the end, aviation is a small community and yet drones are part of it. And, yes, drones do present a risk to pilots. But instead of complaining about the drones, get involved and help educate the drone operators, and maybe even help transition them to the next level – full-scale aircraft.
Okay, back to the reason I bring this up; there are and have been drone operators and model aircraft pilots flying as hobbyists all around the country for years. The model rules already tell them to stay below 400 feet, day-VFR.
And there are commercial drone operators that have went through the process of getting the 333 Exemption and flying legally with a licensed pilot. And they hopefully will know and follow airspace rules.
And then there are those people that are flying wherever they want, whenever they want and at whatever altitude they want.
But, there’s more: Now there are power companies using drones to check their power lines. Oil and gas companies are using drones to make inspections on wells and pipe lines. Wind generator companies are using drones to inspect windmills. And the list goes on, including law enforcement, search and rescue, research, surveyors and even claims adjustors.
What I am trying to get at is (and here is where the numbers come in), with the huge growth in drone usage, it won’t just be the modeler at the local model-aircraft field. It will be worldwide usage that can impact almost everyone wherever they fly. Remember, one company sells 15,000 a day!